HOMESTEAD, Florida – The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires appears to be as unpredictable as ever for 2018.
Teams from the first two rungs of the INDYCAR-sanctioned development ladder – the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires – completed two days of testing Sunday for the annual spring training event on the 14-turn, 2.21-mile road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The introduction of the PM-18 chassis boosted the intensity as Pro Mazda enjoyed a flurry of activity for the top spot throughout. However, bragging rights became apparent in the last 30 minutes of the final session.
The weekend saw 15 drivers complete 1,610 laps, with Carlos Cunha scorching the timesheets in the No. 1 Mazda/Tatuus PM-18 for Juncos Racing with the overall best pace of 100.452 mph (1 minute, 19.2017 seconds). The lap by the 18-year-old Brazilian, who finished third in the championship as a rookie in 2017, cleared by more than four seconds the best time set last year at spring training with the previous chassis.
“I think we still had a little bit (of speed that could have been found),” Cunha said of the lap. “I still had enough time coming. I did a pretty good lap and the setup was much better, but I felt we had a lot to improve. I don’t know how much, but a couple of tenths (of a second) maybe.”
Sting Ray Robb, driving the No. 82 Team Pelfrey entry, made a late run for the top before falling to second at 100.190 mph (1:19.202). The 16-year-old Idahoan was joined by rookie teammate Rafael Martins, who scored the fourth-best overall lap of 99.945 mph (1:19.604) in the No. 80 Team Pelfrey car.
“We’ve done several tests this winter, working on my driving and on the car setup – and the chemistry with the team has been a huge factor,” said Robb, the youngest driver this season in Pro Mazda.
“Coming into the weekend, we know what we can do and here at spring training we got P2. The new car is so fast, brakes well, corners well and it’s way nicer to drive than the old car. It feels like a real race car. Last year was my rookie season and it was a rough year, mentally and physically, so it’s good to be back in the swing of things, back in my rhythm.”
BN Racing rookie David Malukas sandwiched between the Pelfrey drivers for third-place honors in the No. 79 entry (99.977 mph, 1:19.5785). Parker Thompson impressed by going P1 in the first and third sessions in the No. 90 Exclusive Autosport entry. The 19-year-old Canadian put in the fifth-best overall lap of 99.843 mph (1:19.6849).
Rookie Kirkwood sets pace in USF2000 testing
It was a series of musical chairs for the top spot over six practice sessions in USF2000, In the end, it was rookie Kyle Kirkwood flexing his muscle for an overall best lap of 94.972 mph (1:23.7723) in the No. 8 Mazda/Tatuus USF-17 for Cape Motorsports.
The 19-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, drove for Cape last season in U.S. Formula 4, winning the title. Moving over with the team to a series where Cape holds seven consecutive championships adds pressure, but even Kirkwood was blown away by the performance this weekend.
“I came to them knowing we would be quick,” he said. “I didn’t think we were going to be that quick. I was pretty amazed. I mean, yesterday in the second session we were 1.3 (seconds) faster, which is huge. I really wasn’t expecting that.
“I was actually looking at the times I was like, ’Oh, I was 0.3 faster.’ Then I looked at it again and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m at the different second,’ so that was pretty cool. It gives me a lot of confidence going into St. Petersburg, knowing that we have a fast car and should be able to go into that with a similar pace.”
The overall combined pace had 16-year-old Swedish rookie Rasmus Lindh, in second place with a lap of 94.801 mph (1:23.9236) in the No. 23 Mazda/Tatuus USF-17 for Pabst Racing.
Kaylen Frederick, who finished fourth in the 2017 championship as a 15-year-old rookie with Team Pelfrey, has moved over to pilot the No. 24 Pabst Racing entry this season. Frederick claimed the top spot in Sunday’s final session with a speed of 94.600 mph (1:24.1011).
A third Pabst driver, Lucas Kohl in the No. 22 car, didn’t own the top spot on the leaderboard in any session but was consistent enough to have the third-best lap overall at 94.637 mph (1:24.0684). Overall, 23 drivers logged 2,755 laps throughout the USF2000 sessions.
MRTI spring training wraps up today with the top level, Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, testing on the Homestead road course. Sessions run from 9 a.m.-noon and 1:30-5 p.m. ET, with live timing and scoring available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy open the season with doubleheader race weekends at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11.